Star in their eyes: new documentary looks at Rajinikanth’s besotted fans

Filmmaker Rinku Kalsy talks about her new film which follows the devoted fans who worship the Tamil superstar.

A handout image of Rajinikanth in Lingaa (Courtesy: Eros International)
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The dateline: October 2010, when the Tamil film star Rajinikanth's Enthiran was set for release. The scene: Diehard fan N Ravi from Sholingur, a town near Chennai, the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, climbed 1,200 steps of the local temple – on his knees. His prayer? The film's success.

N Ravi happens to be the president of the Sholingur Rajinikanth Fan Club and one of the thousands of diehard fans in Tamil Nadu who venerate – admire would be too mild a word – this actor known to his fans as anbu thalaivar (dear leader). In an article published around the same time, Slate magazine described Rajinikanth, affectionately known as Rajini, as "a force of nature".

For the Love of a Man

When Rinku Kalsy, an Indian filmmaker based in Amsterdam, read about Ravi in a Chennai newspaper, she was intrigued, and ended up making a documentary about the phenomenon, titled For the Love of a Man. The film, produced by Kalsy's Anecdote Films, took four years to make and is due out early next year. It follows the lives of a several Rajini fans – among them a look-alike artist and a tuk-tuk driver – to understand the incredible influence the actor has on their lives.

To an casual observer of cinema, Rajinikanth's popularity can be a little puzzling, given that he started off as a conductor on a public bus in Bangalore. He does not remotely look like a movie star. Now 64, he never bothers to hide his baldness or signs of ageing, unlike some of his contemporaries. But his innate ordinariness – and of course the over-the-top characters he portrays in his films – have endeared him to the masses. On the day his movies are released, fans queue up to pour milk over his posters – all life-size – as if in offering to a deity. (Unexpectedly, Rajinikanth's most recent movie Lingaa, which was released on December 12 to coincide with his birthday, opened to mixed reviews.)

For the Love of a Man is produced by Joyojeet Pal, a professor at the University of Michigan. Kalsy, who studied economics and worked in the aviation industry before giving up her career for filmmaking, won several awards for the 2010 film Mila's Journey, which she co-directed and produced. Pal, on the other hand, had never worked in cinema, but has cinematic roots – his great-grandfather worked with Bombay Talkies, a Mumbai-based movie studio that ran from 1932 to 1954, and was one of India's first screenwriters.

Telling the story

Despite being unfamiliar with Tamil, the most-widely spoken language in Tamil Nadu, communication was never a problem for the filmmaker. “For starters, we are both fans ourselves, so we all speak a common language,” says Kalsy with a laugh. Kalsy and Pal initially funded the film with their own money – later, they raised more through the crowdfunding website Cinecrowd.

Along with Ravi’s referrals, Kalsy found other fans through Ravi Anna, the head of Saidapet Fan Club. She was particularly struck by Gopi, a delivery man who sold his home to pay for the celebrations of one of Rajini’s blockbusters. Another hard-core fan is G Mani, a former gangster who went legit after watching Rajini’s movies.

“Besides the long-term fans, who tend to be older, we also discovered a new generation of equally besotted fans,” says Kalsy. “For example, one group of twenty-something men call themselves the SSRK [SuperStar RajiniKanth] Boys and get active every time his films hit cinemas. They run a Facebook page, design T-shirts and show up at theatres for the first screening.”

“Rajini’s fans treat the idea of fanhood the way people who subscribe to religion treat their relationship with the deity they worship,” says Kalsy. “Also, being part of a fan club gives them a sense of belonging and brotherhood.”

Kalsy has also interacted with family members of fans, trying to understand their reactions and willingness to be part of such madness. For instance, some wives of these fans have even agreed to sell all of their gold jewellery to pay for their husbands’ obsession.

But Kalsy and Pal are quick to point out that their documentary is not about the fanaticism of Rajinikanth’s fans but “a meditative look at the lives of real people that explores why they do what they do”.

Interestingly, most of the film crew were young students and filmmakers from Chennai who are avid Rajini fans. “Our crew is driven entirely by passion – most of them have worked for little money,” Kalsy explains.

For the Love of a Man is due out early next year, and Kalsy hopes to take it to film festivals across the world.

“We are hoping for a general release in India, but it is rare for documentary films to be shown in theatres here,” laments Pal.

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